Iraq and Libya (II)

The following article was published by Reidar Visser, an historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford and currently based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The recent successes of the opposition forces in Libya have prompted a second outpouring of comparisons between Iraq and Libya as well as another bout of compilations of dos and don’ts in a post-conflict reconstruction environment. As the entire Middle East region goes on holiday for the Eid this week, it is worth reflecting for a moment on one particular aspect of the Iraq-Libya comparison that has failed to receive much attention thus far: The approach adopted by the respective oppositions to questions of territoriality and state structure during their periods of transition.

In Iraq, of course, one of the main watchwords in the post-2003 setting was “federalism”, which thanks to Kurdish and American pressure had been grudgingly accepted by the Shiite Islamists during the opposition conferences of 2002. At first, the Shiite embrace of federalism had been seen mainly as a concession to the Kurdish desire for autonomy within the Kurdish-majority areas, but gradually, some of the Shiite Islamists developed an interest in federalism themselves and tried to combine it with sectarian rhetoric. The crucial point of transformation in this regard appears to have been the negotiations over the Transitional Administrative Law in 2004, in which Adel Abd al-Mahdi of the Shiite Islamist ISCI used the argument that “everything the Kurds have, the Shiites shall have” to make the concept of federalism applicable to all of Iraq. Of course, ISCI’s subsequent attempt at converting the general Shiite population to a pro-federal position proved singularly unsuccessful; nonetheless the damage had been done and today Iraq still struggles with a constitution from 2005 that remains full of contradictions thanks to the premature and unnecessary introduction of federalism as an option also for governorates outside Kurdistan.

It is a refreshing but largely unnoticed sign, therefore, that the new transitional charter of the Libyan opposition does not tinker with the existing state structure in Libya in any way. The charter basically confirms the existing unitary arrangements including Tripoli’s status as the capital. True, there is reference to the flag of the monarchy area – which with its tripartite structure at least does have a federalist origin – but it is fair to say that during the past tumultuous months the old flag has come to signify general anti-Gadhafi sentiment rather than a specific pro-federal stance. Neither “federalism” nor “decentralisation” occurs in the text of the charter at all.

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